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Humanoid robot facilitates 'telehandshake' between the ISS and Earth

20 December 2015

An astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS) and researchers from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) shake hands, though many miles apart.

The 'telehandshake' (photo: German Aerospace Center)

Remotely controlled from the ISS, SpaceJustin, DLR's humanoid robot in Oberpfaffenhofen, acted as a proxy in these interactive pleasantries on 17 December 2015. The Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov on the ISS and Alin Albu-Schäffer, Head of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, on Earth could see each other, converse and – thanks to force feedback – feel the pressure and movement of the handshake.

"The Kontur-2 technology experiment has allowed DLR to take another major step forward in robotics," says Pascale Ehrenfreund, chair of the DLR Executive Board. "This is the first time that we have succeeded in using a humanoid robot to implement force feedback between an astronaut orbiting the planet and a human being on Earth.

"The scientific results of this project will open the door to a broad spectrum of applications, ranging from planetary exploration to more 'earthly' areas in telemedicine and telepresence for people who find themselves in critical situations."

The Kontur-2 joystick (photo: German Aerospace Center)

The Kontur-2 joystick, developed by the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, on board the ISS since July 2015, controlled SpaceJustin's arm and provided force feedback. The space-qualified joystick on board the ISS can be used to transmit delicate force feedback to astronauts in real time. An additional control element on the joystick can close the robot’s hand so that the astronaut can even grasp objects

Time delay in data transmission is one of the biggest challenges faced by telepresence applications in space. The delay over a distance of roughly 400 kilometres is 30 milliseconds. A specially designed control concept ensures that the lag does not precipitate unstable behaviour that might otherwise cause the system to move in an uncontrolled way.

Telepresence technologies will be crucial to the future of space exploration; astronauts will be able to control a robot performing fine motor tasks while exploring Mars, the Moon or other celestial bodies without ever leaving their space station. Telepresence would even enable ground controllers on Earth to perform maintenance and repair work on satellites.


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